Monday, April 13, 2009

The Wolfman is Looking At You

Did you ever notice in the classic Universal horror films that the featured monster frequently will break the fourth wall and look directly at you, the viewer, if even for just a menacing glimpse?

I'm not talking about the full-frontal, soft-focus terror of the original "Phantom of the Opera" unmasking scene, where we're invited to "feast our eyes and glut our soul" on Erik's (Lon Chaney) accursed ugliness. No, I'm talking about those menacing looks, delivered by his own son's Wolfman, for example, that seem to say, "I know you're watching me. And I'm coming to get you."

The "Creature Features" late-night weekend movie show was going strong on WSJV-TV in South Bend during my pre-teen years, so I was able to catch all the Universal classics. They'd begin at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday (later if there was a game), but I didn't care. I'd make a deal with my mom to take a nap beforehand so that I could get up again. Alone or with my sister, I'd watch them unspool while the crickets chirped outside the open windows and a warm, damp midwestern summer breeze sent the curtains billowing. The lights were off in the living room, of course, and only the glow of the enormous console television set provided illumination. And the thrills would begin.

What about the direct-eye-contact thrills? They varied in impact. The 1931 "Dracula" certainly had misty atmosphere, but the scene in which Lugosi is descending upon Helen Chandler in bed abruptly cuts to the shot of him staring straight at us to evoke a "YOU are the victim!" response, his mouth is curled in a toothless sneer that makes him look like he forgot his dentures! Not scary. Boris Karloff's mummy, Im-Ho-Tep, dragging himself toward the hysterical Bramwell Fletcher, is much creepier, but the payoff is still only semi-frightening because his eyes are mostly concealed in bandages and therefore not direct. Actually, he shouldn't even have eyes, but that's a moot point. And Karloff's other magnificent portrayal, the Frankenstein Monster, is never intentionally menacing unless he's being threatened by those ever-reliable villagers, so he even managed to generate sympathy while strangling one of them. The Wolfman, however, was a completely different story.

The suspense would build while I waited for the elaborate facial transformation to occur. The filmmakers would tease me early on with a hairy hand here, a clawed foot there, but I wanted to see the face. Then the time would come. I'd watch in excited apprehension as Larry Talbot became the Wolfman in those obvious but still strangely compelling lap dissolves. My heart would really start pounding after he got that black wolf nose because I knew he would crinkle it as if he could smell someone...and then he'd look at me! Thrilled and terrified at the same time, I'd hide half my face behind a blanket, wondering if tonight would be the night that the Wolfman would cast a shadow across my curtain, only to pull me out of my suburban slumber and rip out my throat. I knew even as a kid that in the sequels these scenes became more extreme, to the point that it seemed that he was going to ask for a date, but I still loved that eye contact.

Here's a primo example of what I've been talking about. The YouTube poster obviously shot it off of a television, but you still get the shot of Lon slyly looking at us. Yeek!

Did any horror films of later years make good use of eye contact? The Creature from the Black Lagoon looked straight at us, but that was only to fulfill the thrills of 3D. And I remember when the full-color, full-blooded Hammer films hit the drive-in theatre circuit. Christopher Lee would bare his fangs and almost make eye contact with the camera, which still made the hairs on my arms stand up . In "The Exorcist," there are two "I'm looking at you" shots during the final exorcism when Linda Blair's head spins around for the second -- and less horrific -- time, but even as a kid (I saw it in its original theatrical release when I was 13!) I thought it was kind of cheesy and pandering.

I'm sure Jason Voorhees must have looked at us at some point throughout the numerous "Friday the 13th" sequels, but his eyes are kind of wet and blurry in the "I kill but what I really want to do is direct" sort of way. And, of course, Freddy Krueger looked at us many times with ever-diminishing results. If they can get back to the thrills of the original 1984 version with the recently-announced remake (with Jackie Earle Haley!) they will truly have hit on something. Otherwise, the tedious abbatoir "Hostels" and "Saws" don't look at you -- they want you to look at them and say, "Eww, how disgusting!"

Nevertheless, things haven't changed for me even now. If I happen to catch any of the "Wolfman" movies on AMC, I always wait for the transformation scene. And I still feel the same frisson when Lon's eyes dart over to the camera. He wants to kill me!

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